Film still from Slow (2024) | Dir. Marija Kavtaradzė

Editorial note: This interview contains spoilers.

Slow, Lithuanian director Marija Kavtaradzė’s latest film, recounts a romance between Elena, a modern dancer, and Dovydas, a Lithuanian Sign Language interpreter. When they meet during a dance class for deaf adolescents, they seem to be headed for young love. But events take an unexpected turn when Dovydas informs Elena that he is asexual, not attracted to anyone of either sex. What follows is a heartfelt portrait of a couple who find themselves on terra incognita, trying to negotiate romantic terrain they not only don’t know but never imagined. Elena has doubts about continuing with Dovydas but decides to see if this can work—or if maybe she can change his ways. They have to answer questions they’d never dreamed of, like: What happens when desire is denied, when there’s a limit placed on intimacy? Not long before the film’s opening in New York on May 3, Kavtaradzė sat down with critic Mitchell Abidor to discuss the way Slow challenges our expectations when it comes to love, masculinity, femininity, sex, fidelity, and being in a couple.

Mitchell Abidor: I’ve just discovered there’s such a thing as International Asexuality Day, which is on April 6. Did you know about this?

Marija Kavtaradzė: I did.

Abidor: What drew you to this combination of characters?

Kavtaradzė: I read about asexuality a few years ago, and it interested me, but I didn’t have a story. I became really interested when I realized this could be a relationship story. I have no experience with this at all, but I can relate to it really well because I think it’s about certain things about ourselves that can’t be changed, when the needs are so different between two people. I wondered, How can they create a life together? And then I was interested in the ways that they could be together, though they’d have many expectations about how it should be. But they’d have no prior representation of a couple like theirs, they’ve never met people who are like that, who could talk to them about it. This ends up making them feel they’re alone, that they have to build everything from scratch. They have to build their relationship without any plan. I was interested in how they would do this. I felt like I know these characters, I like these characters, and I decided I would invest myself in seeing how this works.

Abidor: I thought it was noteworthy that both of them work in areas that communicate wordlessly: Elena in dance, Dovydas in Sign, both of which are also very physical forms of expression.

Kavtaradzė: Giving them these occupations came very naturally because I knew they’d meet while he was signing, while she was leading a group of deaf dancers. I knew their professions from the very beginning, but I didn’t realize how well this worked until later on. There wasn’t a separate moment where I said, “These are their jobs.” It came with the characters. It’s nice that you notice they’re communicating without language, but their work allowed them to be very open, very free, more vulnerable. It’s easier for them when they communicate this way than when they’re speaking Lithuanian.

Abidor: A key question in the film is that of the nature of masculinity, of how Dovydas’s asexuality forces us to confront the relationship between sex and manhood. Was there ever a moment though when you had the characters reversed, with Elena asexual?

Kavtaradzė: I think that setting it up the way I did makes the situation harder for them. There’s a scene that didn’t make it into the final script where he says, “I thought I was more progressive than I am when it comes to open relationships.” I think this goes for both of them. Elena also thinks they’d be more open-minded, but when it comes to their relationship, we see how Dovydas struggles with his masculinity and she looks at her femininity and says that she just wants everything to be “normal,” which in that moment was a very insensitive thing to say. I don’t think she’d ever say that if it wasn’t her own situation. I was interested in how they feel in this world. They’re my age, they’re my generation in my country, so I can easily imagine their struggle in this situation. 

Abidor: The film contains two different forms of asexuality: there’s Dovydas’s secular form…is it psychological? And there’s Viktorija, Elena’s friend in the convent. When she asks her friend if she doesn’t miss men, she says she doesn’t even think about it.

Kavtaradzė: I’d say that in his case it’s simply a matter of orientation. I didn’t want to look for the causes of it, for the reasons why. I didn’t want to psychoanalyze that because I didn’t think it would be respectful of the character. And I wouldn’t say Viktorija is asexual: she’s celibate, and that’s very different. She’s in the film to show that there are other ways of living. And there was always a question when I was writing the screenplay about some sort of loneliness around her, and that’s why she not only says she never thinks about men, but she also says, “I’ve never felt lonely.” I believe her when she says that. I believe in her choice: it’s good for her, the life she chose, so I just wanted to show different people living different choices, with relationships, without relationships.

Abidor: A cinematic way that Dovydas’s asexuality works to the benefit of the film is that it maintains a level of tension we don’t normally feel. They have feelings for each other that will never be expressed sexually. We’ve come to take for granted that everything leads to the sex scene, but that never happens here. We don’t know where it’s all going to go, though we know where it isn’t going to go. Slow then has a tension missing from most contemporary films.

Kavtaradzė: That’s true, and it adds to the romantic feeling as well. I once watched a lecture about writing romantic comedies, and we were told there was a rule to cut before sex scenes, to just show them the next morning because otherwise it’s too heavy emotionally. But here it’s different because we do have scenes that are very heavy and intimate. But I think that, in general, it helps people to feel more connected when the relationship isn’t centered so much around the actual sex act. I think viewers miss that.

Abidor: It’s almost like a throwback in that sense to films of the 1940s, in America—and, I’d guess, in Lithuania. Did the actors—who are brilliant, Kestutis Cicènas as Dovydas and Greta Grineviciute as Elena—have any role in how the characters would develop?

Kavtaradzė: They shaped a lot of the screenplay because I cast them early on. I cast the film after I wrote the second draft, so they knew they’d be in the film two or three years before it went into production. When I was working on the screenplay I’d send them different drafts and we’d talk about them, and what helped me was that I knew that they would play these roles. We had improvisation sessions, and when I was writing I would take inspiration from knowing exactly how the characters looked. I don’t really like to improvise before the camera, I like to keep to the script, but we’d have small moments when we would improvise: not the text but the movements. It was very playful, in that sense, but at the same time it was very rehearsed.

Abidor: The film is shot using a handheld camera all the way though.

Kavtaradzė: Yeah, I love that.

Abidor: It’s almost like a documentary in that regard. The camera is following them on an uncharted voyage of discovery as they seek to reinvent “the couple.”

Kavtaradzė: To be honest, using handheld I always feel freer. I feel like I don’t want to commit to a stable camera. Especially in this film, where we have a lot of movement, a lot of dance. I didn’t want the dance scenes to have a different vibe, I wanted the whole film to have a flow. Every scene is a dance scene, and the dance scenes aren’t shot like dance scenes: I wanted all the images to dance together. We rehearsed a lot, mostly location, with both actors and camera; even so, we were quite free on the shooting day to come in and look for the best angle. We were very prepared with the actors, knowing just what they were going to do, but I like more improvisation with the camera. And though we had handheld, we had a camera operator as well, so the cinematographer and I could see things separately; I really liked that dynamic. 

Abidoor: As the film is winding down, Elena says, “We’re going to break up and there won’t have been any point to this.” Was there any point? Is there any point in a couple beyond being happy together?

Kavtaradzė: There’s your answer. 

Abidor: But she really needed a missing ingredient.

Kavtaradzė: Yeah. What she missed the most, and she said this, was being desired, being wanted viscerally. She missed that more than sex itself. That’s the thing, when she says there will have been no point, and I think that’s the point of the whole film: just the fact that they fell in love. It doesn’t really matter if it lasted ten years or a week: the relationship matters. It matters because it was real, and I do believe that they loved each other, and that’s enough. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to make this film, and also why I was tempted to make this story more, let’s say, “standard,” and I thought, Maybe now is when they should move in together. But I realized they didn’t really need that; for these characters it wouldn’t have been natural—though to the audience it might prove this was a more serious relationship. I stopped myself, though, saying, Let’s not do this for the audience, let’s see what the characters actually want. 

When we finished the film, I saw more ways they could stay together, but it didn’t really matter to me whether they stayed together or broke up. I don’t think Elena was right when she said it won’t matter. 

Abidor: At the end, they both say they’ll always care; but the next shot after that, Elena says that she’s with another guy, while Dovydas is right back where he started, signing lyrics to pop music. Did they care forever?

Kavtaradzė: I can’t say. The ending of the film is open. Some people think they stayed together and had an open relationship, and others think they broke up. 

Abidor: What do you think?

Kavtaradzė: I have my answer, but I won’t share it: it’s an open ending. 

Abidor: The thing is, in saying, “I’ll always care,” they sound just like any couple when they break up, trying to make each other feel less bad. They become normal when they break up.

Kavtaradzė: What’s interesting is that I called that scene the “breakup scene” and my editor called it “the making up scene.”